Mrs Beeton and the art of household management

Professor Kathryn Hughes explains how Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management helped middle-class urban women run their households and navigate married life.

Although it is over 150 years since she died, the name ‘Mrs Beeton’ is instantly recognised around the English-speaking world. Her Book of Household Management contains 2000 recipes and runs to over 1000 pages of authoritative advice on everything from how to treat a cold to what to say during a social call. So it comes as a surprise to learn that Isabella Beeton wrote Household Management when she was in her early 20s and had virtually no personal experience of keeping house.

The book was aimed at a generation of middle-class women who, for the first time in history, had not learned household skills from their mothers. New codes of gentility meant that young women in the 1850s were more likely to know how to play the piano and converse in French than they were to bake bread or make their own clothes. Increased mobility also meant that young housewives frequently lived in different towns or cities from their families. With no-one to turn to, they needed a book to help them navigate the first tricky years of married life.

Millais's illustrations for Orley Farm by Trollope

For middle-class Victorian ladies the challenge of managing a household was made immeasurably easier with the aid of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household management (1861).

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Beeton's Book of Household Management

Beeton's Book of Household Management [page: frontispiece and title page]

The frontispiece and title-page of Mary Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), showing a farmyard scene with the motto ‘The Free, Fair Homes of England’.

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The beginning the Book of Household Management

Isabella Beeton’s work first appeared in print in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (EDM) the pioneering monthly periodical owned and edited by her husband Samuel (Sam) Orchart Beeton. Cookery was part of the EDM’s editorial mix and in 1857 Isabella started contributing a column on ‘Cookery, Pickling and Preserving’. Her very first recipe, for ‘a Good Sponge Cake’, was a disaster. She forgot to mention how much flour was required, and was obliged to print an apology in the next issue. This mistake becomes less surprising when you learn that Isabella was not actually an experienced cook. The eldest girl in a family of 21 children, most of her domestic experience had involved looking after small children. Once she married in 1856 there is no evidence to suggest that she enjoyed cooking or was particularly good at it.

Beeton's Book of Household Management

Beeton's Book of Household Management [page: facing p. 141]

Illustration from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861).

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Despite this, Mrs Beeton’s cookery column became such a popular part of the EDM that Sam decided to produce a spin-off. The Book of Household Management would be released in monthly parts, which would build up over two years to produce a domestic Encyclopaedia. As well as recipes there would be authoritative advice on how much to pay your domestic servants, what to reply when asked to dinner, and whether it was acceptable to take your dog with you on social visits. A doctor also contributed a chapter on common illnesses and remedies, and a lawyer provided legal notes on such matters as how to make a will and the legal rights of landlords and tenants.

Since Isabella Beeton was not a keen cook, the question remains where did her recipes come from? It turns out that she lifted all of them from classic cookery books. Some of her sources date back to the mid 17th century, although she also copied work from more recent cookery writers including Mrs Raffald and Eliza Acton. She was able to do this because copyright law was weak and it was – and still is – hard to prove originality in a cookery recipe.

Mrs Beeton did, however, add important refinements to the material that she collected. She was one of the first cookery writers to list all the ingredients at the beginning of the recipe, so that the housewife could make sure she had everything she needed before she started. She was also more accurate about timings and temperatures than any of her predecessors. As a result her recipes are easy to follow even for those who had no experience in the kitchen. She also included a very detailed ‘Analytical Index’ at the front of her book, which allowed the reader to find what she was after very quickly, from ‘Anchovies, fried’ to ‘Wine, cowslip’.

Household economy and rural nostalgia

Menu plans for the week allowed the inexperienced housewife to plan ahead and, by encouraging the use of seasonal food and the use of left-overs, Mrs Beeton celebrated household economy as a useful science rather than something to be ashamed of. There were also helpful illustrations and beautiful colour plates, which treated the eye while providing visual clues as to how the finished dishes should look. Mrs Beeton also included a great deal of background information on the history of various ingredients and details of where they came from. The readers of Household Management were likely to have been born in towns and had lost contact with the origins of their food. A series of scandals was also drawing attention to the way that unscrupulous shopkeepers were adulterating food in urban areas. For this reason there is a strong vein of rural nostalgia running through the Book of Household Management. The frontispiece shows an image of an idealised farmyard scene with the resounding motto ‘The Free, Fair Homes of England’ written underneath.

Although Mrs Beeton’s book includes tips on the duty of the butler and menu plans for ‘A Sumer Entertainment for 80 Persons’, she was careful to include a great deal of material that was relevant to women on much smaller budgets. Under the section ‘the duties of the housemaid’, she includes helpful instructions on how to black a grate or shake clean the curtains. While many of her readers actually performed these tasks for themselves, they also liked to read about what went on in upper-class homes where a dozen servants were employed.

Beeton's Book of Household Management

Beeton's Book of Household Management [page: 6-7]

For middle-class Victorian ladies the challenge of managing a household was made immeasurably easier with the aid of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861).

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The importance of keeping a good house

Although Mrs Beeton’s stern voice often makes her sound as though she enjoys bossing her readers, in fact she was on their side. She wanted women to feel that keeping house was just as important as any man’s job and she famously compared the mistress of a household with a ‘Commander of an Army’. She also explained that women needed to be good housekeepers in order to ensure that their husbands returned home promptly at the end of the day rather than lingering in ‘taverns and dining-houses’. Although she is not explicit, Mrs Beeton is hinting that a man who is unhappy at home may stray into the arms of a prostitute. For her, the comfortable middle-class home is much more than a matter of clean teaspoons and perfect jellies. It is nothing less than the foundation of a properly functioning moral economy.

Mrs Beeton may have had her own husband in mind when she spoke of restless men who liked to visit taverns. As a young man Sam Beeton seems to have slept with prostitutes, and he certainly displayed all the symptoms of syphilis. If he had infected Isabella during their honeymoon, this could explain why she had so many miscarriages and stillbirths before finally giving birth to two healthy babies.

Mrs Beeton’s legacy

Isabella Beeton died in 1865 at the age of just 28 from a bacterial infection she had developed shortly after giving birth to her second surviving child. However, in the years after her death her Book of Household Management became increasingly popular. It was regularly updated by Sam and, later, by other journalists. New details were included of gas cookers and refrigerators. In the Edwardian period the food contained in ‘Mrs Beeton’ became rich and sumptuous. Later editions dealt with such tricky matters as running a home with fewer servants. Readers did not know or care whether ‘Mrs Beeton’ herself was responsible for updating the book. All that mattered was that ‘her’ advice continued to feel relevant. The book became a standard wedding present, and young brides carried it out to the colonies of India and Australia where it remains to this day a standard fixture in the kitchen.

  • Kathryn Hughes
  • Kathryn Hughes is Professor of Lifewriting and Convenor of the MA in Lifewriting at the University of East Anglia. Her first book The Victorian Governess was based on her PhD in Victorian History. Kathryn is also editor of George Eliot: A Family History and has won many national prizes for her journalism and historical writing. She is a contributing editor to Prospect magazine as well as a book reviewer and commentator for the Guardian and BBC Radio.

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